Saturday, October 11, 2014

Coming: A Glossary of Frontier Fiction

OK, I have completed, proofed, polished, and sent off Vol. 2 of How the West Was Written. (For more about Vol. 1 and how to get your copy—published by Beat to a Pulp Press and at a hard to beat price—click on the book cover in the left sidebar.)

Time to move on to the next project, a glossary of frontier fiction, which covers the same years, 1880–1915. As I read more from this period, I continue to add words, phrases, and their definitions. Here is the current crop from recent reading:

Bill = reference to a Wild West show, as in Bill-show, Bill-show cowboy, Bill-horse. “You she’d have seen Rusty Mikel, Miss, the time his Bill-hoss turned a flip-flop onto him.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

charro = a Mexican horseman or cowboy, typically one wearing an elaborate outfit, often with silver decorations, of tight trousers, ruffled shirt, short jacket, and sombrero. “In their motley uniforms, regulation khaki or linen alternating with tight charro suits and peon cottons, they were exceedingly picturesque.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

Chemisettes, 1850
chemisette = a woman's garment of linen, lace, or the like, worn, toward the end of the Victorian era, over a low-cut or open bodice to cover the neck and breast. “Under pretense of admiring the hand-made lace edging on the girl’s chemisette, she managed another peep and saw the leather worked with Gordon’s monogram in gold.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

calzones = breeches, pants. “It appears that he had only has dirty cotton calzones to be buried in, so his wife begged a worn white suit from Mr. Benson.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

copa = cup. “But for you I’d be taking my copa right now out of the cook’s keg instead of dying of thirst in this lousy desert.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

fonda = inn, tavern. “In the barranca we shall find a fonda with liquors and a girl, none prettier in all Chihuahua.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

mill tail = the current of water running in a channel and turning a mill wheel. “While I go after ’em, you ride like the mill tails o’ hell an’ bring out Bull and Jake.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

mogul = a steam locomotive with three pairs of driving wheels and one pair of smaller wheels in the front. “She climbed up and sat beside him while the mogul rolled and racked and plunged forward through the night.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

mozo = a male servant, attendant (from Spanish). “A mozo rode in one day, with a package from Ramon.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

pedro = a trick-taking card game, popular as a gambling game until the end of the 19th century. “They took their ease one hot nooning, two playing pedro at a rough wooden table while the third dozed and nodded with stool tilted back against the adobe wall.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

rag and bobtail = common, ordinary people. “So they are going to join the rag and bobtail in the wake of the revolution.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

roundabout = a short jacket. “His dress seemed an acknowledgment of his grotesqueness: a short coat, like a little boy’s roundabout, and a vest fantastically sprigged and dotted, over a lavender shirt.” Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark.

shoo-fly = a temporary railway track constructed for use while the main track is obstructed or under repair. “The train plunged down and out of the first ‘shoo-fly’ around a burned bridge.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

wigging = a reprimand, a severe rebuke. “Someone will get a wigging for this.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Judy Alter and A. T. Row, eds., Unbridled Spirits: Short Fiction about Women in the Old West


  1. That's good news about Volume two of How the West Was Written. Let us know when the print edition is available on amazon.

  2. Cool! Sounds like the glossary will be a very useful research tool for those of us who write westerns as well.

  3. One addition -- the chemisette has been around since the Middle Ages, when it was known as a partlet. It faded from fashion and returned during the Regency era. It was very popular with women who had to make one dress serve multiple purposes; worn with a severe chemisette and undersleeves your navy merino or black serge was suitable for daily wear and a frilly one disguised it -- or so you hoped -- for church and those social occasions that did not mandate bare shoulders.

    Chemisettes and undersleeves could be made by hand, took only a yard of muslin or linen depending on the design (and the size of the wearer), and you didn't need a store-bought pattern to cut one out. They were the salvation of the average late 19th-early 20th century middle class woman who got one new dress per year and "made over" last year's for second-best, particularly since she could transform parts of an otherwise worn-out petticoat or shirtwaist instead of spending eight cents on new goods from the mercantile or the Sears, Roebuck catalog.

    The dressier ones acted as a frame on which to mount one's handiwork; tatting, knitted lace, crochet, drawn threadwork and embroidery.

    By the 1930's the chemisette had been re-christened the dickey and was still known by that name during my 1960's girlhood. My mother used to preach at us "Use it up, wear it out, make it do and do without." She was a Depression baby. The chemisette allowed a woman to make a decent show for little cash, so no wonder it was popular.

    1. Nicely described. Male writers/readers/viewers of westerns have little awareness of what it took for a woman to be respectably dressed, while keeping up as much as possible with fashion.

  4. Your work will be a benefit for future scholars. Keep it up, Ron